About two decades ago, I caught a shadow of myself in the form of an ageless boy played by an already dead Broadway star. Mary Martin, playing the title character in the 1960 NBC telecast of Peter Pan, provided a stark contrast to the red-haired cherub in Disney's animated version. The cartoon Peter enforced a strict gender binary for his club, relegating Neverland women to caretakers and damsels. But Martin walked among the Lost Boys, knowing she belonged. When the children declared Peter the husband to Wendy's wife, I felt a strange longing. I wanted to be a lost boy, and yet I worried that if Peter came to my window at night, he'd relegate me to girlhood — another surrogate mother instead of a playmate fully capable of adventure and daring.
A nonbinary lesbian growing up in an Evangelical Christian home, I didn't have the words to describe the discomfort I felt surrounding gender. I gravitated to tomboys and literal boys, clinging hardest to characters like Buttercup in Powerpuff Girls and Helga Pataki in Hey Arnold! Cartoons in the 1990s featured more girls than past decades, but they were relegated to expected, gendered notions of what women could be — even the alt girls like Helga who yelled like a bodega boy but dressed in a pink romper. Those who were less feminine were antagonistic at best, and villainous at worst. Gay, bisexual, and transgender characters were absent entirely from the animated landscape, which is where most children learn patterns of behavior outside of family and school. It has the power to teach immense empathy for those different than you, but also has the power to other children in ways they can't parse until they're much older — like I had to.
Though LGBT representation has improved in American animation, there are still few cartoon characters that represent any part of the community. The sparse inclusion (that's not overtly homophobic or transphobic) that does exist is almost exclusively relegated to cartoons aimed at adults. Some of the most visible and vicious representations of transgender people, such as South Park's Mr. Garrison, have been saved for trans women. When Brian on Family Guydiscovers he's slept with a trans woman, he vomits for almost a full 30 seconds. Lesbians, when they appear at all, are almost always portrayed as unattractive, predatory, or femmes performing for male attention. So when I first discovered Cartoon Network's Steven Universe, I felt a pang of jealousy. Here was an animated series that not only featured a plethora of women, but also showed women who displayed affection for each other. The show's characters aren't relegated to a set range of personality types. Gender expression is fluid; the categories "girl" and "boy" don't matter so much when the principal characters are largely genderless aliens who seem to universally adopt female pronouns. Finally, a children's show seemed willing to give LGBT kids — specifically those of us who walk in between or around binaries — a clearer picture of themselves, even if indirectly. Here was a show trying to fully capitalize on the power of it's platform and use it for good.